Friday, September 23, 2016

A Brief History of the Young Adult Novel

This is somewhat a companion post to our 100th post/1 year anniversary special post right below, since we talk about the state of tween/teen entertainment, particularly of the live-action variety, and it's given me thought about how tween/teen entertainment has evolved not over the years but decades, well predating even the Saturday Morning Half-Hour Animated Toy Commercial phenomenon. Mike and I talked about how sometimes the best shows have a subversive or rough edge to them, and how for the most part corporate types have put the kabosh on that today in favor of what they think is the sure bet of an established formula of slapstick humor and especially cheaply-delivered puns. But before there was a Suite Life of Zack and Cody, or That's So Raven or Even Stevens, before even Dan Schneider took an unexpected career turn from nerdy, early IT specialist to actor on Head of the Class and then later Hollywood television producer big-shot, some authors started making waves with some children's books they had written and would change the literary landscape since (and more).

The entire idea of children's (not tween or teen, those are very recent phenomenons) entertainment is a pretty new idea - consider that Grimm's fairy tales, considered the ur-anthology of children's stories, is roughly about as old as the stories of who I consider to be the first true young adult novelist, Charles Dickens. Not necessarily the fairy tales themselves (indeed some of them are truly ancient by the literal definition of the term - yet others, like the modern interpretation of Snow White codified by the Grimm brothers, was practically brand-new when they compiled their collection) but the whole concept of packaging them specifically for children. If you think about that, you'll realize it's not that old at all. Yes, consider that what's considered the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, isn't much older still (around the middle of the 18th century) but consider that while the novel might be a relatively new concept, of course the concept of written entertainment isn't, but prior to the early 19th century there wasn't much of a distinction between entertainment specifically aimed at children and adult entertainment (not that kind of adult entertainment, get your mind out of the gutter! Lame punchline, I know). Those fairy tales the Grimm brothers collected were originally meant for the benefit of adults as much, or even more than what they were for children. Beyond simple nursery lines and stuff of that ilk, there wasn't much to go on for children to intellectually entertain and pre-occupy themselves with. Nor was there much reason to - children were basically pint-sized labor to exploit, if not by Dickensian overseers and ultra-capitalists then by their own families. A family farm's only source of labor was its own family, and if you needed more farm hands, typically you had to expand the family. Fun for mom and pop in the short term, but you get the picture that there wasn't much to life other than work, work, work (and this is why I tell people the past always sucks). 

The Industrial Revolution certainly saw its share of child exploitation (that went on for decades, deep into the 20th century) but it started to reach a point, already by the turn of the 20th century, that mechanization and improvements in production efficiency meant more time was being freed up, and in the process several concepts began to rise - the whole concept of leisure time as well as public education. These concepts were hardly new (remember, Benjamin Franklin helped to establish public school systems in his native Philadelphia) nor were they exclusive for the aristocracy, but up until this point they might as well have been. What was a new concept was the government enforcing a new policy of compulsory education for all child citizens - yeah we may have groaned about it when we were forcibly marched off to watch our free time get gleefully publicly executed but whether our 9-year-old selves like it or not it was one of the most important and transformative policies in American history. It's a big reason why for both men and women entry-level jobs now consist of data entry, low-level management and even blogging instead of fence-pulling, ditch digging or military service come peace time or the hell of war for men and the family kitchen and nothing else for women. 

With this new concept of compulsory public education, there was now a need for material these children could actually read so that, you know, they could learn to read. So for the next sixty years or so most children's books were written with the goal of being suitable for school use - which meant promoting moral upstanding and reverence to authority, and all those other classic values. Needless to say subversiveness was actively discouraged.

The end result is what you're no doubt familiar with - ultra-soft stories that would easily be at home on Disney Channel in the 80s (and indeed were) or could serve as the inspiration for after-school specials (and I'm willing to bet in some cases indeed were, too). At its best, a skilled author could still turn it into literature capable of standing the test of time, as Beverly Clearly who is probably the peak of this style of children's narrative. But often times it ended up being as cheesy and as forced as the humor on Bunk'd or Game Shakers, like original Full House on Zyloft, and consequently utterly forgettable as soon as the school year was over, if not that week, or the kind of dreck children would only read because they're literally being forced to read it. 

Parallel was a very small, niche market of "dark" novels aimed at kids, but they were few and far between and for the most part just glorified Grimm ripoffs. They didn't have much in terms of foul language or overt sexualization, unless you consider young girls the age of the target demo meeting gruesome but still Disneyfied and moralized ends arousing (and, well, they kind of were meant to be - yeah it was a time of closeted sexual deviancy here). In fact, as "clean" as they would be to modern sensibilities they were pretty much treated as porn aimed at kids. We're talking deep underground for the time here, the stuff that near-literally gave birth to the phrase won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?! But, again, this stuff was about as common and mainstream as the Tijuana Bible which is to say not at all.

Beyond that, all you had were "adult books." Even books that are now considered classics for high school or middle school students to read, and books that would solidly be classified as young adult if they were published today - A Separate Peace, the entirety of Dickens' works, etc. - were marketed and sold for adults, with the full intention of adults reading them with the occasional enterprising and bright "advanced" student.

Then one day this guy named Robert Cormier wrote a book that was more or less an allegory about how he was pissed off that his son's school made his son sell stupid chocolates and stuff. It centered around personality cults and featured fist fights - stuff that was pretty heavy for kiddie fair. But because it focused on kids in high school, his publisher made the fateful decision to publish it as a young adult novel. 

And even prior to that (about seven years or so in the late 60s), this woman named S. E. Hinton published a book called The Outsiders, about a group of high school kids who felt like a bunch of...well, outsiders. And then Judy Blume was writing feminism in young adult novel form.

But that didn't necessarily stop the flood of "soft" young adult fiction, a trend which in fact hasn't stopped and continues to this day. But I do think even the most mainstream of young adult novels have ended up becoming vastly improved product thanks to the market willing to distribute darker, gritter stuff with a very sharp, hard edge to it. It's not uncommon for young adult stories to tackle subjects of loss, bitter love gone wrong, and even disease and warfare in a very earnest fashion. You only have to look at J-Law's and Shaliene Woodley's careers to see how well this is going even still. 

In fact it can even go completely the other way and, as with Family Guy, it starts to seriously lose its edge as it's adopted into the mainstream. I for one can tell you I've been sick and tired of the glut of Twilight and Hunger Games clones that still circulate the market, at least on the used book market and library circuits. Since the literature market tends to be cyclic based on genres, and it tends to be this because the people running the literature markets have a tendency to view the demos as morons, the young adult market is somewhat lost now, or at least more lost than it was in say 2013 or 2014. Between you and me, I'm hoping for both stronger realistic fiction in young adult fiction, as well as science fiction that borrows more from said realistic fiction and is less reliant on shopworn, done-to-death sci-fi tropes, especially both those that were "pioneered" during the heydey of Hunger Games only to be driven straight into the ground and those that sci-fi writers have relied on since Isaac Asimov was an unknown short story author.

In fact, the young adult book market parallels the anime market in a lot of ways. You have a lot of groundbreaking stuff that takes itself seriously, a lot of schlock that takes itself way too seriously, and a lot of mainstream stuff that is more than happy to let Fighty McNot-Goku call each of his attacks in very awkward fashion thanks to bad localization while the background blurs into monochrome but with speed streaks!

My point being, is that I think there is room for the same hard-edged approach that's popular in young adult literature and anime in the live-action tween/teen sitcom (or drama) market, it's just that, again, the corporate willingness isn't there. The closest examples I can think off the top of my head, at least as far as Disney Channel and Nickelodeon are specifically concerned, are all imported from Canada or Australia - My Babysitter's a Vampire, Backstage, even Make it Pop! and yes even The Other Kingdom and Mako Mermaids. MBAV, in fact, is somewhat often cited (including by me) as a single-cam series that successfully blends serious moments with the type of slapstick humor Disney Channel and Nick really loves (I've already reviewed the movie a year ago and you can just read that to tell how much of an MBAV fanboy I am). And again, if foreign markets are more willing to do it, I'm willing to bet someone who might get on, say, YouTube Red might be willing to try it out as well.

Other Thoughts

 - I couldn't think of a place to put it in the main body, but speaking of that hard, raw edge, the more I think about it the more I think of an increasingly obscure but big-in-the-day series called The Clique, that ran from the very early 2000s (just in time to exist in a post-9/11 world, pretty much) all the way to 2011 or so and ended up being, altogether, 24 books (not counting the graphic novel and activity books - or the made-for-DVD movie starring Bridgit Mendler and her pal Samantha Boscarino - yeah this is pretty much where they got their start - and the Nintendo DS game). The Moral Guardians-That-Be derided it for being a manual on how to be a female bully, and they weren't exactly the most well-written books ever (you can go to the TVTropes page for greater details, but there were inconsistencies and just bad writing throughout). But it still had that very hard edge for this type of thing - a very honest look at bullying, from the perspective from the bully no less, and for an entire book series, so I can respect why it became so popular when it was.

 - Fun fact: this blog was originally intended as a YA novel review blog but I kinda gave up on that after seeing that literally everyone else and their siblings do it already. So empty and unused this blog sat until Christian and Sean came along and inspired me to review other Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows instead.

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